Conventional wisdom…the system…just “the way things are”… I call these things cultural traps, these “idioms, maxims, ethics, and ways of living that we accept as normal.”
I’ve already discussed how following these things unquestioningly, though benign in intention, can lead to unhappiness.
But things are changing, and people are realizing it’s okay to challenge and defy these traps.
And of course there’s the flip side of these traps: There are great things about the American national character that help rather than harm. And so I’d like to close the loop on this discussion and talk about some of those “reverse cultural traps,” and how, in my opinion, they’ll end up saving us all.
Optimism. The classic American “can-do” attitude. This has taken a beating from cynics, SJWs, government, and recent events, but it’s still there. If there’s a problem, we’ve generally been brought up to believe that we will figure out the solution.
This explains why Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were such effective candidates and are perceived as successful, popular presidents: they knew and understood how powerful this cultural belief is. Controversially, I would argue that Donald Trump is tapping into this same vein. Bernie Sanders did to a degree as well.
We tend to have hope in a brighter tomorrow. And while it might be a delusion, oftentimes the delusions we create for ourselves end up causing us to turn them into reality.
Examples: Emerging from the Great Depression, President Roosevelt hammered this message to keep the nation’s spirits up. And it worked.
We saw the same with the Space Race. Eisenhower didn’t concede a thing to Khruschev, and later when the Soviets successfully sent the first human j to space, Kennedy basically raised an eyebrow and said “Oh yeah?”
Individualism. An individual as the most important civic unit over the state. This is a hallmark of the American experiment. The fact that our culture has a historic anti-authoritarian streak, as evidenced by us so-called “gun-nuts” who believe that we are all responsible for our own well-being, promotes risk-taking and adventurousness. “Let your freak flag fly” and all of that.
Examples: The American archetype in pretty much every film. The bad boy. The rebel. The cowboy. The loner. The anti-hero. Doing the right thing while sticking it to The Man, whoever that might be.
This explains the popularity of motorcycle gangs and other groups of “outlaws.” As some argue, the way of (primarily) men is the way of the gang.
There are myriad real-life examples as wel. Think of the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s. They were individuals to the core. Like him or not, Malcom X’s point was that he was a man, damn it, and he demanded to be treated as one. Dr. King as well, though less strident in tone.
Hard work. The belief that hard work and fair play still persists, despite assurances that he system is “rigged” against us. And it is. To a degree. But the cultural belief that you make your own destiny still leads people to do wonderful things.
Examples: All of our ancestors. Without his belief that the American Way worked, why the hell wild anybody have come to these shores in the first place? Think about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the son’s of Jewish immigrants who created that umtimste symbol of Americanism, Superman…
Though we live in a time of unprecedented prosperity, this attitude remained. And may it never go away. Without this cultural quirk, we’d have no Silicon Valley, no small businesses, no entrepreneurs.
Individuals, not the collective, make this country run, and the brilliance of our system is that it recognizes this and protects the individual.
Mobility (literal and metaphorical). Today’s poor will be tomorrow’s rich. While not as fluid as it once was, America is still a socially mobile, aspirational place.
Even better, we are a car culture. The open road, the lure of autonomy…if you’re unhappy with your situation, just pack up and move somewhere else. Nobody is stopping you. You can choose your base of operations based on whatever life appeals to you.
Examples: In my personal life, I know two people who left the little town we grew up in and hit it big. I’m sure you do as well.
And unlike in some countries where you need paperwork to move, here you can chase opportunity wherever it presents itself.
Lastly, think about rapper and business mogul Jay Z. The man went from selling drugs to one of the richest and most influential media and entertainment moguls on the planet. And for him (though kids: don’t do drugs)! Only in America.
Reinvent yourself. Finally–and this is a component of individualism–is the American ethos that life always has another act. No matter where you are now, you can rise like a phoenix and come better than ever.
Examples: Here’s a corny one: George Foreman. Most know him as the happy grill-hawking guy who named all 75 of his children George or some variant thereof. But did you know he gained fame as one of the meanest, nastiest, and most feared heavyweight boxers around?
See? It’s not all doom and gloom in these United States. Far from it. This is a unique place, and our culture has produced wonders unprecedented in much of history. The fact that so many young people seem to be rediscovering this is a reason to be optimistic for the future.
So the next time some smart-ass asks you “What’s so good about America, anyway?” you’ll have some answers ready to go.